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Tested by fire

"Tested by fire" Continued...

Issue: "Reinventing Hillary," Nov. 17, 2007

When the Red Cross received from a remote area a request for bottled water, Guevara called The Rock, which immediately dispatched a van. A week later, on a Saturday, The Rock received a request for water containers large enough to care for farm animals. The church called the Red Cross, which cut through red tape and weekend closures to meet the need.

On Nov. 6, several dozen local churches and ministries met to discuss long-term care of fire victims, including a plan for churches to "adopt" individual families and provide close-up recovery care for as long as it takes. Such care will be critical for people like Anita Giannaris, who spoke with WORLD at The Rock's distribution center in central San Diego.

The telephone-alert system that gave many San Diegans time to pack before evacuating didn't work in the Rancho Bernardo neighborhood where the Giannarises rented a home. By the time police with bullhorns ordered the Giannarises out, a wall of flame had reached their street. Giannaris and her husband Steve, 36, a Navy special warfare chief, fled through burning embers, with only enough time to gather their three children and the family dog.

"We lost everything," said Giannaris, 33, tears collecting in her eyes.

The compassion shown by The Rock, and by the Giannaris' own congregation, Canyon Hills Community Church, was a welcome relief from the businesslike and often impersonal aid provided by the larger relief agencies. "As I navigated through FEMA . . . no one ever explained how it all worked. They just shuffled you from one station to another," she said.

Giannaris is grateful for disaster-agency aid, "but more important was the outpouring of support from my church," she said. "People I didn't even know would come up and give me a hug. . . . You can't replace that human connection."

Not a trinket left

Two generations of loss in Valley Oaks retirement community

By Tom Pfingsten

Peggy and Steve Pfingsten survey their losses on Nov. 2

The last time I saw my parents' home standing, I was doing my best to spray their roof with a garden hose. The stream barely reached the rain gutter, so I gave up and retreated to watch the Rice fire stretch its arms around the Fallbrook, Calif., mobile home park where they lived.

Valley Oaks was a haven for retired folks living off pensions and Social Security. As the housing market in Fallbrook boomed, the park was where someone with a fixed income and fading health could live affordably. On Oct. 22, while million-dollar estates burned on Fallbrook's hills, a far more tragic scene unfolded in that valley near the interstate.

During the fire's crescendo at Valley Oaks, only six volunteer firefighters remained to fight back the flames. They kicked over burning fences. They doused embers with garden hoses. Because of their efforts and a shift in wind, half of the park still stands. But when the smoke cleared, more than 100 mobile homes belonging to retired couples and a few young families had been destroyed, turning the charming neighborhood into a surreal landscape of twisted steel.

Four generations of our clan joined the exodus of residents evacuating Fallbrook that day, while I stayed to report on the fire for the local paper. The next morning, I spotted a pile of rubble in place of the home where I spent my last four years before marriage. I then called my sister, who relayed the loss to our parents. My grandparents lost their home in the same park, doubling the fire's impact on our family.

Perhaps what is most difficult about watching loved ones suffer is reconciling their pain with God's sovereignty. I want nothing more than to see my folks spend their balance of years enjoying the beautiful sunset He is painting with the colors of their lives. But they do not seem to share my angst, accepting even this tragedy as another color on His palette.

A week after the fire, I listened as a 21-year-old volunteer fireman who tried to save their house described the chain reaction that day in their small yard. "Your dad had a roll of roofing paper over there," he said, pointing to where the tool shed had been. A burning wooden fence fell on the roofing paper, which lit the shed, which ignited their home, he recalled. Three spaces away, a row of houses mysteriously survived.

"I'm sure they come through here and say, 'Why are those homes still standing, and ours isn't?'" he said quietly.

But they don't. I have stood in the rubble with them several times in recent days, and not once have I seen them cry for themselves, nor heard them envy their neighbors' fortune. The first thing my mom had to say upon seeing the devastation on their block was that the family across the street was uninsured. She cried for them.

It's not that everything is fine. I know now that when fire does its work, the result is so final there may not even be a trinket left to arrange on the new mantle after rebuilding. Fifty years of recipe cards turn to ash in their tin, wedding jewelry melts, and anything not made of steel or stone is reduced to white flakes and dust.

Like many others who lost homes and possessions in the October wildfires, my parents don't know where they will live. Mom only knows she doesn't want to go back to the convenience of a mobile home-"Not if they burn down that quickly."

But if you ask them how they're doing, as two chaplains touring Valley Oaks recently did, they'll smile-even as they sift through the remains of their home-and tell you the fire could not touch what is most important to them: grandchildren, good health, and 40 years of marriage. Hearing them tally the blessings, it becomes clear that God's grace outweighs tragedy, even that of losing a home.

-Tom Pfingsten is a reporter for the North County Times in Fallbrook, Calif.

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